When Rafael Nadal won his 13th French Open this month, he donned a neon-pink face mask and kissed the trophy, known as La Coupe des Mousquetaires. He then removed his mask and bit the handle.
The trophy is an homage to Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste, known as the Four Musketeers, the revered Frenchmen who put their nation on the tennis map in the 1920s and ’30s.
“I can’t overstate the impact the Four Musketeers have had on French tennis,” said Guy Forget, a former top five ATP player in the early 1990s and the tournament director for the French Open. “Everything from the Roland Garros Stadium to the Lacoste polo shirts you see people wear all over the world, is all because of those four men.”
The first film version of the Alexandre Dumas novel “The Three Musketeers,” with Douglas Fairbanks, opened in 1921, shortly before the four young French tennis players began their assault on the world’s major championships. It didn’t take long for them to earn their nickname.
Brugnon joined the French Davis Cup team in 1921 and remained a stalwart doubles specialist for the next 11 years, winning the doubles titles at the French Championships five times, Wimbledon four times and the Australian once. Each time, he partnered with another member of the Musketeers. Brugnon also won two French mixed doubles championships with Suzanne Lenglen, winner of six Wimbledon women’s singles titles from 1919 to 1925.
Borotra was born near Biarritz in the Basque region but went to Paris to work on his tennis skills. Borotra, known as the Bounding Basque for his fast, energetic forays to the net, won singles championships at the Australian, French and Wimbledon tournaments.
Cochet, whose father was secretary of the local tennis club in Lyon, often served as a ball boy for the older players, which is where he got his nickname, the Ball Boy of Lyon. He went on to win four singles titles at the French Championships, two at Wimbledon and one at the United States Championships in Forest Hills, N.Y.
In 1926, Cochet upset Bill Tilden, winner of six straight U.S. Championships from 1920 to 1925, in the quarterfinals in New York.
And then there was Lacoste, who didn’t pick up a tennis racket until age 15, but still managed to win three French singles, two U.S. and two Wimbledon titles. So shrewd and determined was Lacoste that he kept a notebook on the strengths and weaknesses of his opponents.
Lacoste earned his nickname, Crocodile, after a Boston sportswriter, George Carens, wrote that Lacoste was “tenacious on his grip, flashing a toothy omnivorous grin and relentlessly chewing up his opponents slowly.”
Lacoste was so taken with his nickname that he had his suit maker sew green crocodiles onto his jackets. He also designed short-sleeve cotton polo shirts that would replace the long-sleeve ones worn by players during that time.
In 1933, after he had retired from tennis, Lacoste founded the clothing brand that Novak Djokovic, among many other top professionals, wears. In 1967, Lacoste also designed the split-shaft steel tennis racket that, as the Wilson T-2000, Jimmy Connors used throughout much of his career.
But, by far, the Four Musketeers’ greatest contributions were their Davis Cup victories for France. The prestigious nation-against-nation team competition was once dominated by Australia and the United States, which, behind Tilden and Bill Johnston, won from 1920 to 1926.
Then, in 1927, Lacoste beat Tilden and Johnston and, after Borotra and Brugnon lost their doubles match to Tilden and Frank Hunter, Cochet defeated Johnston to notch a 3-2 win for France.
That win would begin a six-year Davis Cup reign for France. In 1928, Roland Garros, site of the current French Open, was built to host France’s defense of the Davis Cup. At the stadium’s entrance is the courtyard Place des Mousquetaires.
“For us, the Musketeers are very important,” said Nicolas Mahut, a former world No. 1 in doubles and last year’s ATP Finals winner with his countryman Pierre-Hugues Herbert.
“The stadium where we play a Grand Slam tournament today was built for them. They were the first ones, along with Suzanne Lenglen, who have made this sport as important as it is in France right now.”
There have been other great French players. Simonne Mathieu won the French championship in 1938 and 1939 and has a court named for her at Roland Garros. Marcel Bernard won there in 1946, the first year play resumed after World War II. Yannick Noah became a national hero when he beat Mats Wilander to capture the French Open in 1983.
Mary Pierce became the only Frenchwoman in the Open Era to win Roland Garros when she beat Conchita Martinez for the title in 2000. Amélie Mauresmo reached No. 1 in the world in 2004 and then won the Australian and Wimbledon championships in 2006.
But what flutters the soul of French players are the Davis Cup and Fed Cup, which in September was renamed the Billie Jean King Cup.
Frenchmen have won the Davis Cup four times in the Open era, including most recently in 2017. But it was the team’s 1991 win over the United States in Lyon that was noteworthy. It was the first time since 1932 that France had won the Davis Cup. Borotra, then 93, joined the team to drink Champagne out of the trophy.
“As teenagers, all we wanted was to be like the Musketeers and bring the trophy back to France,” said Forget, who became close friends with Lacoste, who died in 1996.
“When you’re a kid, you always have dreams of being a star or something special,” he said. “The emotion is very strong. For me, it was to be like Lacoste and the Musketeers. Everyone in Paris had so much respect for them. They were like stars from Hollywood, like John Wayne and Gary Cooper.”